Frankenstein at 90: The genius of Boris Karloff

One of the greatest horror movies of all time debuted 90 years ago today. In its honour, here’s a post I originally wrote in 2010 about the enduring power of Frankenstein:

It’s a little late for Halloween, but I’ve been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved ’em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What’s amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I’d say was the king of monster movies — the original and best Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi‘s immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr‘s tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein’s Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man’s desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.

The very first scene when we see the Monster in “Frankenstein” is remarkable. The Monster walks eerily backwards into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second — then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It’s still chilling 80 years after it was filmed.

Karloff’s portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans. 

The famous “monster meets the blind hermit” sequence in “Bride of Frankenstein” is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It’s an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.

The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we’re seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world’s cruelty. “Alone: bad. Friend: good.” That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he’s alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole “monster you feel kind of sorry for” motif we’ve seen everywhere from “King Kong” to “Twilight.”

Karloff’s skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who’ve played the Monster — in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein’s Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.

All the world’s a page: The best books about Shakespeare’s world

Shakespeare tends to draw you in. If you get hooked, it’s hard to back away. I’ve been hooked for years, starting with an excellent class in high school all the way up to my experiences volunteering for several seasons  at the late, great Pop-Up Globe here in Auckland. And lord knows, seeing plays in person has been difficult the last year or two. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Shakespeare fans. Enough books have been written about Shakespeare to fill up a Pop-Up Globe, and despite the fact that what we actually know about his life could probably fit in a few greeting cards, that doesn’t stop mountains of speculation, linguistics, analysis, fiction, parody, explanation, conjecture and discourse. Here are a handful of my favourite go-to books on Shakespeare’s world for when you’re seeking a fix of the Stratford sage.

There are an awful, awful lot of Shakespeare biographies out there, which confounds when you think about how little true biographical information we’ve got. I quite enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare for a general primer, and the always amusing Bill Bryson’s pithy, brief Shakespeare is a good overall introduction to the vast world of Bard studies. For a general guide to the plays I actually really like DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook, which I picked up at the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland years ago – it’s compact enough to haul along to a play for summaries if you want to be that nerd in the theatre. As a photographic tour through Shakespearean history, Shakespeare’s Restless World by A History of the world in 100 Objects author Neil MacGregor is excellent. 

For my money, the most consistently entertaining explicator of Shakespearian life these days is James Shapiro, who’s written several great books on the Elizabethan theatre. He’s written what I consider the definitive debunking of the whole “Shakespeare didn’t actually exist” business, Contested Will, and two very thorough examinations of specific years in Shakespeare’s life, 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Those two tomes do a fascinating job of looking at the world around Shakespeare and how the politics and society of the time led to plays like King Lear. Shapiro then delivered a truly great combination of Shakespeare and the modern world, Shakespeare In A Divided America, which is a history of how this most British of writers found a home in America over two centuries, with Presidents and poets and rioters swept up in his wake. From the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to a very Trumpy take on Julius Caesar in 2017, it’s an excellent look at how the past isn’t even past when it comes to Shakespeare’s relevance. 

Another recent book was written by an old work colleague of mine, Paul Chapman. Secret Will: How People, Events and a Dancing Horse Inspired Shakespeare   is a bit in the vein of Shapiro’s work by investigating the world the Bard lived in and how it affected his writing. It’s a great bit of detective work which explores the violent, unsettled world Shakespeare lived in and how it informed him. I’m a mere amateur Bard buff compared to Paul, who packs his book with fascinating anecdotal side trips down all sorts of historical roads spinning out from the plays, from hidden disses on well known Elizabethan actors to the peculiar fad of the “dancing horse” to the man who inspired the real Shylock. These kinds of forensic investigations can be dry, but Paul gives Secret Will a relaxed, entertaining tone throughout. I learned a lot from it and it’s well worth seeking out. 

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch is billed as a “post-mortem” biography and it starts with Shakespeare’s death at just 52, and looks at how he nearly fell into obscurity when theatres themselves were banned during the English Civil War. Lynch also takes close looks at how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays have changed over the years, how their language has been bowdlerised and mutated by would-be improvers over the centuries, and the curious phenomenon of “rediscovered” Shakespeare plays that actually turned out to be forgeries. It’s a good primer to explain why this long dead dude still obsesses people.

The late Harold Bloom was almost a living caricature of the windy, self-important academic, but his many writings on Shakespeare gave him the right to brag, culminating in his massive doorstop of a book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. My edition of it even thicker than Shakespeare’s own complete works, but it’s a towering work that analyses every play he wrote with the sweeping overall thesis that the Bard’s writing is a milestone in human development and self-image, “creating” much of what we think of today as being human. Dipping in and out of it is like a master class in criticism. Bloom also did several shorter books focusing on characters like Falstaff and Hamlet that are well worth seeking out. I don’t always agree with Bloom and he could definitely be a bit pretentious, but he also almost always leaves me thinking – the sign of an excellent teacher. 

Speaking of obsessions, you can’t go wrong with The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays for a hit of literary sleuthing that delves deep into the legacy of the First Folio – the only real way that any of us even know who Shakespeare is, and how the surviving Folios from his time have become insanely high-priced fetish objects for collectors. It looks at Henry Folger, an American businessman who became utterly obsessed with obtaining copies of the Folio, and where they are today. Having had a rare chance to actually see one in Auckland a few years back,  I admit I can see the appeal of coveting some of these ancient texts and Mays’ book is thrilling reading even for non-Bardophiles. 

Whether you’re obsessed with the words, the history or the cultural impact, there’s literally libraries of Shakespeare to take the centre stage while we wait for a more normal world. Or as Prospero puts it in The Tempest, Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough.”

So, this is 50

It’s not quite the 50th birthday I once planned – from pre-COVID plotting of having an epic holiday in Japan, to maybe going over for a weekend in Sydney. Then as countries locked down it became possibly a jaunt to Wellington or maybe just stay in Auckland for a nice restaurant dinner, to today, under ongoing Delta lockdowns that hopefully will be a thing of the past by my next birthday.

So, for my gala celebration, it’s takeaways with family, Skype with parents and maybe a quick ocean swim to shake off the cobwebs.

That’s good enough, really.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1990, by Yousuf Karsh

There’s a quote by another guy who was born on the same day as me, Kurt Vonnegut, that kind of sums up the vibe of being here, alive and at a half-century in a world not quite like I imagined it would be when I turned 20, or 30, or 40:  “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

I’m 50 today, and Kurt would be 99 years old.

It’s a kind of happy accident that I’m here at all, that any of us are, and in the end, you get what you get.

Again, to quote my birthday buddy Kurt:

“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” 

Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

Up in the tree, dreaming of comics

Kids do weird stuff. They all do things that seem kind of, well, wacky when you become a boring adult dealing with bills and retirement funds and insurance payments. 

Following up on the release this week of my fiftieth humble little comic book, Amoeba Adventures #30, I kept thinking about a weird habit I had from the age of about age 12 to 15. I was a confused pre-teenager and well, I was kind of a nerd. 

And so many afternoons after school, I’d climb up a tree in the backyard of our family home and perch on a patio cover built up there, and then I’d imagine comic books. 

I created an entire imaginary universe of comics in my head – like many comics nerds do. “The Galaxy Comics Universe” (which I played around with on and off with my old friend Chris) was a Marvel Comics photocopy which included a sprawling cosmos of spandex-clad warriors like The Arachnoid, Robotron, Manipulator, El Jaguar and The Dark Avenger. I’d imagine all kinds of adventures for these heroes, who were mostly thinly-veiled rip-offs of existing Marvel and DC comics. 

I’d sit up there in that tree in my parents’ backyard and dream of heroes for hours. 

But I wouldn’t just dream – I’d scribble and sketch, too. I drew bunches of covers for these imagined adventures (but never an actual story, which was kind of weird). And even nerdier, I wrote up Stan Lee-styled hype-filled solicitations for these imaginary comic books, embarrassingly detailed PR in the style of Marvel Age and the like for stories that didn’t exist. 

There’s no obsession quite like that of the 13-year-old. 

I wrote these solicitations for the “Galaxy Comics Universe” for a while there – and I’ve still got them all today, geek über-texts that I bound up along with my awful drawings of the era into little volumes years ago. They are truly absurd treasures to look at now – at one point I got so deluded I started pretending real comics creators like Walt Simonson and Frank Miller were working on my comics. All in all, I wrote hundreds of pages of summaries of comics that didn’t exist – is it any wonder I’m still a comics obsessive decades on? 

But I loved the thrill of imagining a universe, derivative as it surely was, and even as I’m an old man now with what’s left of my hair increasingly grey, that buzzy kick of creation sticks with me. As I get older and the real world seems to get worse, I’m more and more convinced that art keeps us alive. 

I strip-mined those old Galaxy Comics notes and sketches for ideas when, a few years later, I actually started DRAWING comics stories of my own with the first Prometheus the Protoplasm story in 1986.

I became a small press publisher in the early 1990s and hundreds of people actually read some goofy stories I wrote and drew. I took inspiration from some of those characters I dreamt up while sitting in the tree in the backyard and turned them into Amoeba Adventures characters – Dawn Star, Agnus Dei, Manipulator, Macabre and more all came from there. 

The dreams became real, or as real as stories do. Years on, I’m not a kid any more and I spent way, way too many years ignoring the thrilling charge that drawing a comic of your own creates. But I came back to comics in the age of Covid and have to admit, the years melt away a bit when it’s you, a pencil and a blank piece of paper, making up heroes. 

There’s a part of me that never left that tree, there in that backyard of a house I haven’t lived in for 30 years. 

And now, it’s Amoeba Adventures #30

All right, folks, I’ve got a brand-new comic out, Amoeba Adventures #30, and it’s now available 100% free for you to download a digital copy!

It’s an action-packed ticking clock of a tale this issue, as an ordinary afternoon for Dawn Star turns into a fight to survive when the long-missing Rambunny returns. Two of my favourite Amoeba Adventures characters take the spotlight in a story that I had to call … “Take What You Got.” I’m pretty psyched with this one and hope you like it too! 

And you can download the whole story in its entirety for free right here:

Download Amoeba Adventures #30

You can take a look at the first three pages right now:

And as a reminder, you can read more than 40 other comics published by me including all 29 previous issues of Amoeba Adventures as free PDF downloads right here.

This one also turns out to be the FIFTIETH comic book I’ve published going all the way back to me scribbling Prometheus instead of paying attention in Mr. Moore’s junior high school science classes a lifetime ago. It’s been a long crazy road for me with the Amoeba Adventures gang, and I took way too long off from the drawing table for many years, but still, it’s a pretty cool milestone. In this uncertain world of ours right now, there’s nothing quite like taking a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and making something come to life to take away the pandemic blues and keep me sane. (Well, somewhat sane.) 

Once again I’ll be producing a limited-edition print version which will be available for a mere $7.50 shipped anywhere in the entire world to you in early December. You can pre-order that by paypalling some cash to dirgas@gmail.com with your mailing details.  

One last note – if you’ve been hankering after some physical copies of rare Amoeba Adventures comics from the 1990s, as I know a few of you have asked about, prepare yourself for a special AMOEBARGAIN SALE coming in early December! 

Be sure to give my Amoeba Adventures Facebook page a like to keep in the loop and as always, thanks to those who read and like my little scribbles. 

Songs To Help Me Survive 2021

It’s a tough time out there. Auckland’s been in lockdown for just over two months now and New Zealand’s finally coming to grips with the coronavirus in the community. We’ve had great success compared to an awful lot of places, but right now we’re in a battle to vaccinate and stamp things out so it doesn’t get as bad as so many other places.

Still, like most of the last two years in this troubled world, it’s weird and stressful and I think we’re all kind of over it at this point.

In the end, when life starts to feel like a Groundhog Day of working and sleeping and walks around the neighbourhood and masks and health alerts and the increasing insanity of what feels like a good portion of the online world … well, music is one of the few things that makes sense, right?

I made a playlist nearly a year ago of Songs That Helped Me Survive 2020. For a while there, this year looked like it would be more cheerful, but it turns out this thing has a while to go yet.

But we’ve got songs, we’ve always got songs. Happy songs that remind us what it’s like to be human, angry songs that remind us it’s OK to feel freaked out and frustrated, lovely songs that remind us the grace in between the bad times. Here are some of those songs that are helping me survive 2021. I hope you might dig it too if you need a way to get away from it all.

There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky, and he blew my mind


The 1990s were a grim time for superhero comics. Most DC and Marvel comics descended into an almost-unreadable rabble of overworked poses and chaotic storytelling. But there was a bright star shining amid the dross.

James Robinson’s Starman is my pick for quite possibly the best superhero comic of the 1990s. Only Grant Morrison’s adrenaline-fuelled JLA and Neil Gaiman’s more fantasy-based Sandman are contenders. 

From 1994 to 2001, Robinson told a single story about superheroism as a legacy, and when he was finished, that was it. It’s an approach that feels lacking in superhero tales when you have never-ending adventures of someone like Spider-Man, who’s fighting Doc Ock, again, who’s been replaced by his clone, again. 

The hook for Starman was that he was a legacy character — originally one of DC Comics’ less prominent superheroes from the 1940s, a cool-looking dude who flew around with a “gravity rod” but one that never really had much personality.

Robinson changed all that, by reintroducing the now-senior citizen original Starman Ted Knight and his sons, dutiful David and prickly Jack Knight

In the first issue, son David takes up the Starman mantle, his lifelong dream. He’s shot and killed almost instantly. 

A revenge plot by one of Starman’s old foes leads the reluctant Jack to take up the Starman name himself, but he’s not going to be your average superhero. Hell, he doesn’t even wear a proper costume, but an oh-so-‘90s combo of leather jacket, goggles, occasional goatee and lots of tattoos. 

Robinson’s Jack Knight is a fantastic, multi-faceted creation – an antique-dealing ex-punk rocker who’s spent most of his life fighting with his famous father, who never set out to be Starman. Jack is smart, clever and irreverent, sometimes cruel and sometimes funny. Was he the first true Gen-X superhero? If I were fighting supervillains, would I be thinking of obscure Viewmaster slides and Hawaiian shirts too? At the time, surrounded by gritting Spawns and Wolverines as his peers, he seemed like the most human character in comics to me. 

Robinson paired Jack’s unique character with series artist Tony Harris’ depiction of Starman’s home of Opal City, a baroque, art deco-ish time capsule that’s one of the most gorgeous fictional cities in comics. Starman is as much about Jack’s love for Opal City as it is about his taking up the family name. 

Over 80 issues, Jack Knight battled villains and travelled into outer space, teamed up with Batman and learned more about the Starman legacy, including clever reintroductions of several other obscure DC heroes once called Starmen.

Robinson assembled an all-time great supporting cast, from the reformed villain The Shade to Jack’s homicidal nemesis, The Mist. Every few issues Robinson would detour into “Times Past” tales that dove into Opal City’s history, or the cast’s pasts, dating back into the 1880s. This gave Starman a rich, complex tapestry that made it feel so much more real than its superhero competitors of the era. 

Starman wasn’t perfect, which kind of adds to its charms. Robinson sometimes lacked the machine-tooled storytelling of someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who put every bit just right. Starman sprawled, heading off into curious little rabbit holes. Robinson’s writing could be overly verbose, especially in early issues (and I’m not a fan of the hard-to-read cursive lettering fonts used a bit too often for narration). The big action-packed series finale storyline “Grand Guignol” tried to bring the many, many story threads and characters together but is a classic case of having a few too many moving parts undermining the simple focus of the story. I still love it. 

For me Starman is about the details – Jack Knight’s compulsive pop-culture trivia monologues as he faces death, the way forgotten characters like The Red Bee and The Jester from DC Comics’ long legacy are given fresh life and personalities, the complicated bond between fathers and sons. 

This works because above all with Starman you feel Robinson’s contagious love for his characters, for the imaginary city he created, for the decades of history in DC Comics, for the act of creation itself. Starman feels personal in a way that by-the-numbers superhero comics rarely do. 

And when Robinson drew his Starman story to a close in 2001 and Jack Knight rode off into the sunset, DC Comics did something that still seems beautifully rare to me – they let Jack rest. Stories rarely ever truly end in superhero comics, but this one did. There have been other Starmen (and of course a great young Stargirl) in the years since, but Jack Knight’s story was done. He might have popped up in a cameo appearance here or there, but there’s been no “Starman Reborn!” storyline. 

I’d hate to see anyone other than James Robinson do one, frankly. His work since Starman has had its ups and downs, but I still feel only he can really tell Jack Knight’s story.

For a while there in the dark comics clutter of the 1990s, his Starman flew high, shining a light on the glorious possibilities of superhero storytelling. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #13: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional series has shown on several occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.

Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.

Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again. 

Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.  

I’m already a little sick of the multiverse

I’m a comics geek, a mild obsessive who can tell you in detail about the difference between all the Robins or who the best and worst Avengers of all time were. And I love me a good game of “What If” more often than not. But I’ve got to say that I’m already getting pretty sick of the flood of multiverses getting rolled out in both comics and movie adaptations.

“Multiverses” – or alternate versions of existing characters – have a long, strong history in comics, of course, going all the way back to those Superman “imaginary stories” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, on to thinly-veiled spoofs like the Squadron Supreme of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were so many infinite earths and alternate possibilities that DC had a big ol’ Crisis on them back in the mid-1980s meant to simplify everything. There’s been at least a dozen other crises since then.

I absolutely loved learning about Earth-3 and Earth-X back in the day. But whipping out the Captain Ecuador of Earth-78 or the Victorian Batman of Earth 342 who’s also Sherlock Holmes has diminishing returns after a while. There have been many, many great stories involving alternate or reimagined versions of existing characters – it’s one of the ways that icons like Superman or Batman have proven so durable in nearly a century. 

Yet both Marvel and DC now seem determined to not use multiverses sparingly, but to make them the centre of their latest intellectual property strategy. Over in DC Comics, you’ve got Infinite Frontiers and Flashpoints and notions like the idea of seeing Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck’s Batman spread their wings, while Marvel is getting as lost in multiverses as DC did before their ‘80s Crisis, with the kind of underwhelming What If? cartoon show apparently entirely created to give us a shiny team of “Guardians of the Multiverse” versions of the characters we already knew, and the new Dr. Strange and Spider-Man movies set to dive deep into the multiverses of madness. 

I’m still a geek, so I do get a thrill when I see Alfred Molina’s awesome Doctor Octopus from two Spider-Man reboots ago popping up again through some timey-wimey shenanigans. I thought seeing multiple Spider-Men and -Women collide in Into The Spider-Verse was one of the best comic films in recent years. DC’s “President Superman” – a thinly-veiled Barack Obama homage who’s both Superman and the President of the United States – is a cool spin on a shopworn idea. 

But it can get old real fast and becomes the equivalent of a writer just throwing ideas into the air to see what sticks. I dip into DC Comics’ never-ending Crises now and then and it all just becomes a gaudy blur of evil Batman and sideways versions of Flashes. I skipped entirely a recent series of Avengers comics all about yet another evil alternate version of the team.

The multiverse too often becomes all about the colourful over-the-top spectacle of a dozen Batmen together rather than about a good story like Into The Spider-Verse told. It’s all about callbacks and easter eggs rather than forming a solid character arc. It’s fan service turned into plot. A character’s got to have more meaning than “wouldn’t it be cool if Batman, but from Albuquerque?” 

Like I said, the alternate realities of comics have been around a while now, and it used to be, they were a bit of a treat – the bi-monthly issues of What If? in its ‘70s heyday, the goofy stories of Batman and Superman’s sons fighting crime together. But when they start to become the main event all the time, it all just blurs together into an endless stream of writer’s drafts and easy shortcuts to character – what if Wolverine was Aquaman? What if Green Lantern was from apartheid-era South Africa? What if the Hulk was a 6-year-old boy? 

It’s easy for anyone with an imagination to knock off 50 of these multiversal variants in the space of an hour, really. But to make an actual character out of them, that isn’t just a kind of hollow echo of someone else’s creative work? That’s the hard part, and rather than endlessly revisiting the past to riff on it, it’d be great to see all the comics shared universes try a little harder to be new things, rather than new versions of old things.